Born in 1874, in Kamianets-Podolskiy, in the Russian Empire (as it was then), Samuel Kreps left his home town sometime in the early 1890s, in his late teens, to come to London – then capital of the largest Empire the world had ever known. There, on London Bridge, he met Miriam Marco, from Odessa, and they married in London in 1898, and had three children, including my grandfather Sydney (nicknamed Solly). His youngest son, Peter, was my father, and I, in 2019, some 120 years later, am the first descendant of Samuel to have returned to Kamianets-Podolskiy since.
The journey of course begins in Kyiv, the capital of what is today the independent state of Ukraine. ‘Maidan’ – or Independence Square – is where the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan protests of 2014 have helped to carve out a fiercely proud democratic nation from centuries of being occupied by the Lithuanian Empire, the Polish Empire, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Nazis. We stayed, on arrival, in the Soviet era Hotel Ukraine overlooking the square, and enjoyed wonderful views from our balcony.
Kyiv is an old place, with a history of pagan peoples with strange stone idols dating back many thousands of years. On the ancient ‘Kyiv Hill’ – one of several in the heart of the city – a few of these survive, as relics, alongside a modern pagan circle where white-robed worshippers honour the ancient gods to this day. But the history that is most remembered is of the three brothers who in the 9th century founded the first kingdom – on Dytynets – Kyiv Hill – and then in the late 10th century turned to Byzantine Christianity, and developed their own form of it to which the various Eastern Orthodox churches and many Slavic nations all trace their origins. The City was famously divided between the royals on one hill, the churches on another, and the artisans on a third, with deep canyons in between, and it was only in the 17th-18th centuries that these were brought more coherently together.
The Great Gate of Kiev, (as Mussorgsky called it,) or the Golden Gate of Kyiv, (as the Ukrainians call it,) was one of three main gates to this city, another being the Jewish Gate, because there were so many Jews living here, and a third being a small gate opening out onto marshes. The ‘Kievska Rus’ era included great churches in the city bedecked with fabulous mosaics and frescoes. In the 10th-11th centuries it was the largest and most powerful state in Europe.
But the small gate onto the marshes was the weak spot of the city, and when the Turks and Tartars came to attack, in the 13th century, they waited for winter and walked across the frozen marsh into the city and conquered it. This was, for the Ukrainians, the first of many such occupations. For the Lithuanians were soon to take control, and then the Polish, and then the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union.
It was during the Soviet era that Kyiv saw probably its darkest days, first with the millions who were starved or simply ‘disappeared’ by Stalin, and then, when the Nazis occupied the city in 1941. Although probably some 100,000 people were killed during the Nazi occupation, in Kyiv, the worst of all these mass killings took place over two days, when 33,771 Jews were slaughtered, with machine guns, and with the assistance, as our guide told us, of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, at Babi Yar.
From Kyiv, then, we took the road across country to Kamianets-Podolskiy. The roads in the Ukraine are in a terrible state, once you get out of Kyiv, and it is slow and heavy going. But the Autumn colours, mixed with the unprecedented October heatwave (some 10degrees above normal) made for a very interesting journey, both across this broad and fascinating country, and back in time, both to one of the most historic cities of the region, and to my own, family history.
Kamianets-Podolskiy is an incredible city built in and around a stunning ‘island’ of rock. An earthquake millions of years ago tore apart this land and created a deep ravine in an almost circular shape, making for a perfect space to defend from enemies. The resulting city, and the castle defending the bridge across to it, became one of the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cities of the region, and was, at times, capital of various kingdoms and principalities.
The town has its own ancient pagan origins, of course, with the archaeological museum including both items from an ancient pagan altar -the time of the Trypil culture – and several Stone Babas, too.
During the Mongol occupation, when Islam was the overarching religion, minarets were built, but not all these were destroyed when the Eastern Orthodox Christian tribes regained control. Here, uniquely perhaps in all Europe, there is a minaret with a statue of the Virgin Mary on the top, as part of the Roman Catholic Church. This was the one church that survived the Soviet era, kept as a museum against religion, when all the other churches, mosques, and all but one of the synagogues were destroyed by the Marxist Fundamentalists under Stalin.
Over the centuries between the Mongol and Soviet occupations, there were Armenians, Greeks, Poles, Russians, Jews and Ukrainians all living here in their own ‘quarters’ of the city, all at once, the fortunes of each rising and falling according to which Empire was in charge. During the Polish empire (very Roman Catholic) the Jews were not allowed to live in the city, and had to live in ‘shtetls’ – small shanty towns – on the outskirts, their trades restricted to certain professions only.
But during the Russian Empire, in the 19th century, they were not only allowed to engage more fully in the life of the town, but had their own quarter in the old city on the ‘island’, facing the castle across the bridge, as well as occupying a large village at the foot of the ravine below the bridge (now the site of a Soviet era power station). There is, today, both an Armenian Square and a Jewish Square in this part of the old city.
The rivers in the ravine – because the area, millions of years ago, used to be a sea – are brackish, and not good drinking water. There are, therefore, only one or two deep wells where drinking water is available, and, therefore, a limit to the numbers of people the island city can support. In the late 19th century Kamianets-Podolskiy was very over-crowded. There were Cossack-led pogroms against the Jews in various parts of the Russian empire, too. Many Jews left, seeking a new life elsewhere, often passing through London on their way to North or South America, or South Africa, some – like my great-grandfather – staying in England. I guess coming from such a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, thriving and crowded city like Kamianets-Podolskiy, London seemed like a home-from-home for Samuel Kreps. Those Jews that remained in Kamianets-Podolskiy into the 20th century (some 40% of the population in 1939), were all murdered by the Nazis in August 1941.
To crown my visit to Kamianets-Podolskiy, then, I was taken, finally, to the 19th century Jewish cemetery, sadly in very poor condition now, though there are others not far away looked after by Marla Osborn and the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage project. This was, in many ways, the point of the journey for me. As I said to Colin, who took the photo, below, there were undoubtedly people there whom my great-grandfather would have known. I don’t really understand quite why it matters, but it does; it does. It is important that we never forget.